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Controversial Olympic Peninsula Timber Sale Pits Environment Against Education

The marbled murrelet, a federally protected seabird that nests in the coastal forests of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
Thomas Hamer, Hamer Environmental LP/USFWS
The marbled murrelet, a federally protected seabird that nests in the coastal forests of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

SEATTLE -- The Washington Board of Natural Resources voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the sale of 200 acres of the Olympic Peninsula that are home to the threatened marbled murrelet. The money from the timber sale will go to the University of Washington.

200 acres might not seem like that big of a deal, but not if you ask Peter Goldman, director of the Washington Forest Law Center.

"These 200 acres are extremely important," he said. "These lands around these timber sales are heavily used and officially mapped as occupied by the marbled murrelet."

Goldman was referring to a rare seabird whose numbers have plummetted to the point that it's listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It nests in old-growth coastal forests of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and California.

Goldman is working with several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Seattle Audubon Society, and Olympic Forest Coalition, who oppose the timber sale because it will mean clearcutting in murrelet habitat. The tracts are known as the " Goodmint" and " Rainbow Rock" timber sales, and are located on the western part of the Olympic Peninsula.

Last year the University of Washington received $1.35 million from timber sales on state lands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

"The bottom line," Goldman says, "is the University of Washington would stand to gain approximately $500,000 by logging habitat directly adjacent to occupied marbled murrelet habitat.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the University of Washington said: “This is the Department of Natural Resource’s decision. Some people may disagree but it is their call.”

Tom DeLuca, the director of the University of Washington’s school of Environmental and Forest Sciences, is the vice chairman of the state Board of Natural Resources, which makes decisions about timber sales. DeLuca did not vote on this particular sale and did not respond to requests for an interview.

These 200 acres may not be the last remaining marbled murrelet habitat but they’re part of it.

When asked about the report, Goldmark downplayed the findings.

"This is a science team report only," he said. "It’s not proposed as a plan because, first and foremost, our major responsibility is a fiduciary interest to supply revenue for the trust beneficiaries."

Goldmark added that the DNR has refrained from logging on thousands of acres elsewhere in the area, at a significant cost to those "trust beneficiaries" -- like the University of Washington, Washington State University and public schools throughout the state, which received almost $175 million from timber sales last year.

The 200 acres will be put up for sale in April. Environmental groups have indicated they will to file a lawsuit in the next 30 days.

Correction: March 5, 2014. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the number of marbled murrelets known to exist in Washington, as well as their rate of decline. The correct number for the entire state is 4,393, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The rate of decline has been about 7 percent a year.

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Ashley Ahearn